The Past and Potential Future of the Houston Astrodome

April 9, 2015
Can the vast, abandoned Houston Astrodome find unlikely redemption as one of the world’s largest indoor parks?

When Dene Hofheinz Anton was a young girl in the early 1950s, her father would carve time out of his busy schedule as the mayor of Houston, Texas, to take her to see the Buffaloes, the city’s minor-league baseball team. Mayor Roy Hofheinz had previously served in the state legislature and also as the top official in Harris County, which includes Houston, and his significant status meant he was intimately connected with the goings-on of the city.

Baseball games provided rare bonding time for the politician and his only daughter. In the stands at Buffalo Stadium, the pair would endure heat, humidity and mosquitoes to watch games together, but too often their bonding time was cut short by rain. For young Dene, each rained-out game meant less time with her father.

“One night I just casually said, ‘Daddy, why can’t we play baseball indoors?’” she recalls. “In my 10-year-old mind that seemed like a solution. I was only thinking in terms of, ‘Then we won’t get rained out, and then I get to spend more time with you.’”

Hofheinz saw the wisdom in his daughter’s question. Over the course of the next decade he gathered political, architectural and engineering resources – as well as roughly $31m in public funding – and built what was then the world’s largest indoor stadium, the Harris County Domed Stadium, better known as the Astrodome.

On 9 April 1965, the $37m, county-owned Astrodome opened to the public, with Houston’s business elite comfortably seated in its innovative luxury boxes, its climate controlled to 72F (22C) and its grounds surrounded by thousands of parking spaces. The Astrodome’s first event was an exhibition baseball game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, which president Lyndon B Johnson attended. More than 20 US astronauts from the nearby Nasa centre simultaneously threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and later baseball legend Mickey Mantle hit a home run. The evangelist Billy Graham soon declared the stadium the “eighth wonder of the world”.

Today, 50 years later, the space-age Astrodome sits shuttered, locked behind a fence, riddled with asbestos and used only for storage. Victim to an era it almost single-handedly created, in which teams and fans leave behind old stadiums for flashy new ones, the Astrodome has been idle since 2008 – the Astros moved into a newer stadium downtown in 2000, and the Oilers American football team played there from 1968 before leaving Houston for a newer stadium in Tennessee in 1996.

Dozens of ideas for what to do with the empty building have since been proposed, from hotels and theme parks to ski slopes, but none have mustered the support nor the tens – or more likely hundreds – of millions of dollars it would take to turn those ideas into reality. Demolition alone could cost up to $80m. A November 2013 bond election in Harris County to raise $217m in public funds to refurbish the building into a multi-use facility they called the New Dome Experience failed, with 53.5% of voters against the idea. Previously hailed as an architectural marvel, Houston’s Astrodome now faces an uncertain future.

But now, a new plan gathering support among local politicians, stakeholders and preservationists could save the Astrodome. Proposed by an expert panel convened through the Urban Land Institute, this “vision for a repurposed icon” calls for grass fields, trees, play equipment and exhibition spaces in what could be one of the largest indoor parks in the world.